Artist OBSOLETE WORLD and experimental composer ELUVIUM talk collaboration, and the process of creating art.
Words by Tommy Royds
Images by Obsolete World
Approx reading time: 6 mins
Few things top the view of Mount Hood on a clear day. Its picturesque, towering snowy tip serves as a perfect backdrop for much of Oregon's largest city, Portland. A place with certainly no shortage of bucolic country parks or liberal west coast creatives to frequent them. It was here, along the elevated periphery, where fantastical artist Jeannie Lynn Paske of Obsolete World and experimental composer Matthew Cooper, also known as Eluvium, set out on their first collaboration.
“We got to know each other while working on a stop-motion animation film together, driving around the mountains and coast, listening to music.”
Utilising the shell of a disused auto-mobile, the pair later began “projecting it onto the side of a house in downtown Portland, while I played out of the back of an old pickup truck”.
“Jeannie and I met before Eluvium existed and she was actually one of the first people to really seem to understand what I was doing,” Cooper says. “We later worked again on another stop-motion film, and that time we ended up touring the country. I think we feed each other’s creative senses and give each other reminders of concepts and realities that we can sometimes forget. It just feels good and natural and ever inspiring and without expectation.”
Up until the release of their most recent record, False Readings On, Cooper and Paske have stayed auditory and visual partners. With the exception of 2003's Lambent Material (art by Tony Lambright) and 2005's Talk Amongst The Trees (cover by Quint Buchholz), the lush, escapism of Jeannie Lynn Paske's Obsolete World has been the visage of nearly every full-length album.
“I don't think it was ever a conscious decision to ensure we would always be working together. If you love what another person is making, and it is being made near you, it naturally fits into and what inspires you.”
Obsolete World takes its name from a 1961 Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man”, based around a future totalitarian state. As the story goes – a librarian, Burgess Meredith, is put on trial for the crime of being obsolete.
“That episode drew parallels to my own creations and the idea that, as one ages, the imagination one harbours as a child seems to suffer a similar fate. The thoughts and dreams fabricated in youth no longer seem significant in the very adult world of jobs, people, politics, religion and money.”
Inspired by the likes of Jim Henson, Theodor Geisel, Shaun Tan, Bill Watterson, Winsor Mccay, Edward Gorey and Gary Larson, to name but a few, Paske whimsical pieces channel mystery and curiosity, addressing powerful themes of human profligacy and the fading, depleting world all around us. Within its seriousness, Paske counters melancholy with humour, submitting her process to life experiences. “I place a great deal of importance on naming a piece. If words don't shape it, a walk outside, a book, song, movie, photograph or long look at the sky will usually do the trick.”
The cover of False Readings On, is in its hazy, muddied form, the very definition of obsoleteness - a faceless apparition, dissolving into the background. “The artwork itself was derived from an idea that Matthew had come up with.” As Paske explains, “He wanted something a bit more minimal for this album and I had recently been adding more 'humanoid' figures to my work.”
“Much like this fractured silhouette, I feel it fits the music beautifully. One who suffers with the mental stresses of cognitive dissonance can often feel torn between several ideas and slowly ripped apart by the views of these colliding theories.”
This powerful rational forms the basis of False Readings On, which sees Cooper following a natural progression from 2013’s Nightmare Ending. More at ease with his compositional style, he is less of a self-confessed perfectionist. “Nightmare Ending was a lot of dealing with things being a little looser in construction, learning to let things go and feel more raw. This new work was actually about learning to accentuate those things and push them into playing a large character role, dialling everything back and reducing it into a stronger piece.” Alluding to his experimental side, he admits “I've used a lot more tape and hiss and curious noises than I’ve done in a while.”
The seeming loss of control and pursuit of perfectionism gives the latest body of songs more room to breathe and the impression that Cooper is becoming more comfortable in his own skin.
None of those immediate surprises found in early Eluvium tracks, like in As I Drift Off, where an enraged Ray Peterson, played by Tom Hanks in 1989 cult-hit The Burbs' screams “We're the lunatics, it's us, not them, us”, are evident here. However, with each listen to False Readings On, we can we begin to appreciate how Cooper's selected samples give rise to its False Readings On raison d'être.
“The voices used were to try to have something pure that shone through the noise. A defiant and unbroken force amidst the chaos and noise.”
Nowhere is this more clear to be seen that at the core of 7-minute wonder 'Regenerative Being'. The circular string-section is played out over a sound resembling that of a satellite picking up interference, as an operatic voice bellows incoherencies before it's shrouded out by distant cackles and laughter. Perhaps the most compelling section of all is found in, 'Beyond the Moon for Someone in Reverse'. Four minutes of white noise is unexpectedly interrupted by the voices of an entire church choir, lasting but temporarily, as they drown in the songs’ slow demise.
This is Eluvium at his most triumphant. Indeed it’s moments like these which give us a deeper understanding of how this album came to be.
“With False Readings On, I started wondering about how people form their structures of belief about themselves, what they are based in, how people believe what they believe and how misinformation plays a part in our society - whether political, religious, spiritual, or 'value' oriented.
“I thought what it would be like to remove all of this from a person, then applying these thoughts to myself instead of towards society as a whole or 'others'. It was interesting. It caused some anxieties to say the least.”
Such ideas run central to the album’s main theme of cognitive dissonance, evoking the tension that occurs from having two or more conflicting thoughts. “Inconsistencies are practically the foundation of society. Even just getting out of bed, the list would already be astronomical,” explains Cooper, who sees these imbalances as the reason for our existing thought processes.
While Cooper strives to find inconsistencies in False Readings On, the listener seeks the very opposite. Quite a striking example of confirmation bias you could say, yet one that we knew all along, that this is, ironically, yet another captivating Eluvium record.
“The dissonance within us is created by the existence of these hypocritical absolutes in life and our inability to accept them. We change our thought patterns or use confirmation bias to make the inconsistencies work within our structure of belief. It’s just a fact of life really.”